South Charlotte

Autistic man finds artistic flair and friendship at UMAR Arts Program

Russell Dabak (right) enjoys working at the Levine Jewish Community Center with his mother, Linda Dabak. “If I’m out, they don’t care,” Linda said. “If Russell doesn’t show up, everyone is up in arms.”
Russell Dabak (right) enjoys working at the Levine Jewish Community Center with his mother, Linda Dabak. “If I’m out, they don’t care,” Linda said. “If Russell doesn’t show up, everyone is up in arms.” KATYA LEZIN

When Russell Dabak was 2 years old, he stopped talking.

His mother, Linda Dabak, thought he was deaf, but doctors confirmed that his hearing was fine. Linda took him to a series of specialists and, at age 5, Russell was diagnosed with autism.

That was 44 years ago.

“I heard ‘artistic,’ not autistic,” said Linda, 68. “No one knew about autism back then.”

The doctor who diagnosed Russell with autism told Linda and her husband, Ray, to “put him in a home and go on with your lives.”

“We never considered that,” said Linda, who began researching autism and resources for her son as soon as he was diagnosed. She found a residential school for exceptional children and then a life skills program, where Russell learned about personal hygiene and how to make a bed and load the dishwasher.

But the term “artistic” is also apt for describing Russell, who is now 49 years old. Russell discovered his artistic talents a year ago through an art class offered to adults with disabilities.

I do paint, watercolors, canvases and drawing … I feel good when I’m painting.

Russell Dabak, student with UMAR Arts Program

During the week, Russell attends class at the UMAR Arts Center, something he has done for the past six years. UMAR is a nonprofit founded by United Methodist Church that promotes community inclusion, independence and growth for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The UMAR Arts Program offers six-hour classes five days per week through which students learn a variety of artistic mediums such as painting, pottery, jewelry making and digital photography. The class takes regular field trips to art museums, parks and other city landmarks.

“I do paint, watercolors, canvases and drawing,” Russell said. “I also go all around town … I feel good when I’m painting.”

He gets a similar feeling when he spends time volunteering at the Levine Jewish Community Center (JCC), where Linda staffs the front desk. Russell volunteers at the JCC Fitness Center every Monday.

“I fold the towels and clean the machines,” Russell said. “And I greet everybody and make them feel good.”

Cathy Bennett, the JCC Fitness Center director, agrees.

“Russell demonstrates remarkable customer service by knowing and remembering the names of all the members and making sure to say ‘hi’ to them all,” she said.

He has found additional friends through the UMAR Arts Program. Russell considers the other dozen adult students, many of who live in group homes, his friends.

“It makes me really happy to see all of my friends,” Russell said. “I know all of their names.”

The Dabaks are turning to community support to make sure his artistic opportunities and friendships don’t disappear.

They learned in March 2015 that the state of North Carolina would no longer fund the UMAR Arts Program and that they would have to incur the cost of their son’s participation starting this fall.

It would be a real quandary if the program ends. I don’t know what he would do if that bus didn’t come for him.

Linda Dabak, mother of Russell Dabak

“The cost is considerable,” Linda said of the $15/hour fees that amount to approximately $1,200-1,400 per month. “Without assistance, Russell will not be able to continue to attend the program.”

The Dabaks created a Go Fund Me page to solicit donations so that Russell can, as they say on his page, “continue to shine, show and share his beautiful talents and abilities with the world.”

“It would be a real quandary if the program ends,” Linda said. “I don’t know what he would do if that bus didn’t come for him. He needs the socialization.”

When asked how he would feel if he could no longer go to his beloved art class, Russell said, “I would remain calm but I would be sad … I’m a good artist.”

Katya Lezin is a freelance writer: bowserwoof@mindspring.com.

Want to help?

To contribute to Russell Dabak’s Go Fund Me page, “Keep Russell in UMAR Art Program,” go to www.gofundme.com/keeprussellinumar.

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